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Deck and Wood Porch Safety ...

 

May 23, 2014

When you walk out on a deck or balcony, you assume it is safely and properly constructed so it will not collapse, and that it complies with state and local building codes. To help raise awareness of deck and balcony safety, the City of Taylorsville Building Division proudly celebrates Building Safety Month during the month of May.

Protection of the life, safety, property and welfare of residents is met through the adoption and enforcement of codes which is achieved through permitting. The purpose of the code is to ensure minimum requirements are met to safeguard public safety, health and welfare.

Outdoor living became popular about 35 years ago and continues to grow in popularity. A deck is a great place to relax and entertain. Some popular uses are for gatherings and events of family and friends at wedding receptions, parties, family barbeques and even wakes. Estimates show there are more than 40 million existing decks in the United States.

Along with the popularity is a greater risk of injury. Understanding specific safety precautions can help lower your risk of accidents, injuries or death. During a five-year period reportable injuries exceeded 224,000, and since 2003 deck collapses have caused over 33,000 reported injuries and several preventable deaths. Less-serious injuries have included head trauma, concussion and major fractures, such as those associated with backs, and paralysis.

Simple safety precautions should be followed at all times by people using decks, such as not overloading the deck with people beyond the intended design use. Avoid sitting on a deck railing or beam supports, as loss of balance and falling to the ground below are likely. Using stair handrails will help prevent trip and fall injuries. Also, avoid setting furniture right at the edge of the deck to avoid falls.

Other important safety precautions start with construction and general maintenance. As with any outdoor structure, decks and balconies are exposed to the elements 365 days a year. All things have a finite life and this is especially true with structures exposed to the weather. Most experts approximate the average life of a deck to be 10-15 years. Given the lifespan and likelihood of decks or balconies deteriorating, a regular inspection and general maintenance schedule of existing structures is critical.

Regular maintenance inspections of existing structures may include looking at decks, balconies and porches for split or rotting wood, looking for corroded, loose or missing nails, screws or anchors where attached to structures and looking for damaged, missing and loose supports or planking. A check for wobbly, loose or missing handrails and guardrails is needed at stairs and elevated structures.

It is estimated that 2.5 million new or replacement decks were built last year. Almost every new home being built today includes an elevated deck, balcony or porch. And, existing decks on older homes are being replaced at a very high rate as well. In fact, the number of personal injuries and deaths related to decks each year is likely to continue to rise because more decks are being constructed each year and existing decks are deteriorating.

The international Residential Code (IRC) requires residential decks and porches to withstand 40 pounds per square foot plus the weight of the porch. Balconies, which are only supported where they connect to the building without additional posts, should withstand 60 pounds per square foot. Experts agree that the main sources of injuries are failures of the connection between the deck ledger and house band joist and railing-related accidents.

Nail connections can be a problem because, unlike bolts, nails can pull out. The US Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin studied five years of newspaper articles on deck collapses from around the country while researching a deck-building manual. The research showed that nearly every collapsed deck had been attached with nails rather than bolts, and investigators had pinpointed nails as the cause of collapse.

A screwed-in connection works differently than a nail by gaining increased strength from the wedging action of wood fibers along the entire length of the shaft. For every inch of penetration, lag bolts have as much as nine times the pullout resistance of a nail. The screwed-in connections offer another benefit over nails. They resist the expansion and contraction of the wood. They may, however, loosen over time, making maintenance critical. With nails, the deck may fall without any warning signs. Yet, bolts aren't without their own challenges. In fact, lag bolts had been used on an elevated porch on a Chicago apartment building. When that porch collapsed on June 29, 2013, 13 people were killed and more than 40 were injured. Inspections showed the lag bolts were actually bent.

The results of good construction, permits, building inspection and plan review are often unseen. Both new and replacement decks require a building permit before construction begins. Required inspections include footings (before pouring concrete), framing and final completion. Other code inspections, such as an electrical inspection, may be required based on the work being performed.

 

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